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The voice hissed from out of the surrounding purple glow of the silver idol: “Whosoever’s hand you touch within the next twenty-four hours will receive a mystical gift. Now, cradle me.”
She rose from her kneeling position and placed both hands gently around the figure. “It is greatly appreciated, Master.” Her green eyes were glazed with a seemingly luminescent frost. Love. Her face and body language exuded love. She blew out the four black candles surrounding the idol and left the room.
* * *
Murphy looked out of his insect-stained windshield into the middle of the narrow two-lane highway. Another mass of roadkill lay about seventy feet in front of him; he’d already seen four dead animals so far. His ‘68 Camaro approached the blackwhite-orange clump of muck. A dead skunk. What the hell is that orange color? he thought. When he got closer he could see it was where the skunk’s internal organs had mashed and mixed with its black and white fur.
He was en route to the post office in a neighboring city, twenty minutes away from his own, to pick up a package for his grandmother. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t pick it up at his own post office. But he did understand that a dead animal had been appearing along the highway every three hundred feet or so with a gruesome regularity. And the carnage was beginning to unnerve him.
Minutes later, he gripped the steering wheel tighter at the sight of yet another glob of road pizza. This time an armadillo, lying on its back with short fireplug legs, prehistoric looking scales and claws, sticking up like someone planting new flag poles in their front yard. He tried to steer so that the animal would pass underneath freely, but heard the thump-thump of one of his tires catching some part of it. A short spasm of nausea climbed out of his stomach and up into his chest.
Damn weather. Always cloudy. Reminds of being stuck in that story about the Headless Horseman, by... whatever his name is. He repositioned his feet, then groped in the passenger seat for a cassette tape. He jammed the first thing he got hold of into his tape deck and turned the volume up. “Cut the Stone” by Crematorium blared out of his cheap speakers.
A truck roared beside him in the passing lane.
He turned his head and saw a black Hummer zoom along booming hip-hop out of its open windows: the sound of bass and drums came through with a hint of tinny melody emerging over the top: all highs and lows with no mids, no color present in the waves of sound.
All that money for speakers and the dude is tone deaf. How apropos.
Entering the city limits, he noticed the buildings were considerably newer and the roads in much better condition than those of his home town. He remembered some of the derogatory comments he had heard people from this town make about his own. The population is double that of my town, but there still isn’t anything to do here, still no culture of any kind.
Pulling into the post office parking lot, he saw various people scurrying in and out of the front door. The thought of waiting in a line for thirty minutes sent a wave of fatigue through him. He locked his car doors and strolled up to the front of the brick building.
Murphy pulled open the door and stepped inside. The post office smelled like a hundred bottles of shellac had been poured over a hundred oak tables. The wooden floor creaked ancient groans beneath his hiking boots, and it felt unusually hollow. He looked around. One wall was lined with windows providing natural lighting. And as he expected the line to the clerks was a long one. He went to the end of the shortest and began reading the Wanted posters on the wall.
A couple of minutes later he glanced up and noticed a woman sashaying toward him. She was of medium height, had short black hair and glasses. The state of her grey jacket and maroon double knit pants suggested she was in the same socio-economic bracket Murphy was in. She was smiling. He scrutinized her expression. Her smile wasn’t flirty and it wasn’t a smirk. It was the smile of a spaced-out loony, like a cross between a circus clown and a schizophrenic. She came closer and he stepped a little to his right in case she wanted to pass. But she kept coming closer. He looked back toward the Wanted posters and then heard the woman speaking to him in a soft voice.
“Would you like to ... the hand of ... ?” she asked.
“Pardon?” he said.
“Would you like to take the hand of zs..sheww.. ..cchh?”
Murphy stared at the unknown woman standing in front of him. She had shy green eyes and her now unsmiling face exuded an air of defeat. He couldn’t understand exactly what she was saying, didn’t understand whose hand he was being offered. But he wanted this woman very far away from him and soon. He placed his hand in hers and shook it lightly. He looked into her sad face as he grasped her hand and noticed she wasn’t looking at him, but actually above and to the left. Perhaps it was the intensity of his gaze that caused her not to meet his eyes.
“Bless you,” she said.
“Okay,” he said. “All right.”
She mumbled something else but he didn’t understand that either. She went away and Murphy watched as she approached another man and heard her say something similar.
The line grew smaller. He studied the woman as she made her way around the post office. Some people made insulting comments before refusing to shake her hand. Others ignored her altogether. He never saw another person take the hand of who or whatever she was offering. Guess I’m the only fool in this place, he thought. He eventually made it to the front of the line, signed for his grandmother’s package and left the post office.
He drove back with his grandmother’s package setting safely in the back seat. He changed tapes to Phantomas and felt the super-charged intensity of the guitar and drums float around him like someone punching the seats and roof of his car.
Then a sting of pain suddenly hit the palm of his right hand, traveled up his arm, and lodged in his solar plexus. He flinched, took his hand from the steering wheel and saw a faint purplish dot in the upper right portion of his palm. He pulled his fingers down into a fist, squeezed, then released them to open his hand again. Hhoonnkk. He raised his head to see a maroon pickup racing toward him. He adjusted his car back into the center of the lane. Another sharp pain shot up his arm. Wow, what the hell? He examined his hand again and saw that the dot had raised sightly and was beginning to bubble up and throb. What did that woman have on her hand?
* * *
Murphy sat in his efficiency apartment with his hand resting in a bowl of water and ice cubes. He was watching Jeopardy and guessing at the questions, trying to take his mind off the condition of his hand. Occasionally, he got a question right. He had read quite a few books and picked up some trivia here and there, although his interests were a little esoteric compared to the subject matter on Jeopardy. A set of drums stood in the background, and there were guitar cases and pedal boards on the floor. A busted P.A. system set in the corner with a panel open and its electronic guts spilling out.
He lifted his hand from the bowl and the temperature of it increased. Flames of pain traversed through his nerve endings as if they were being prodded with pokers. An hour before he had rubbed some ointment on it, but it still felt like it was being burned off at the wrist. The only way he could relieve the pain was by immersing it in ice. And the sight of his hand was making him more and more fearful: red skin, purplish-black veins, grey spots. Worse than that, his wrist had begun to shrink. And the texture of the area around it resembled the wilted lettuce in his refrigerator. I shouldn’t have shook her hand, he kept thinking repeatedly.
He stayed inside his apartment most of the day, although he did call his girlfriend Sheila to tell her he might have the flu, and he wouldn’t be seeing her that night. He didn’t mention the state of his hand. The thought of going to a doctor made him anxious. And the thought of being handed a bill he couldn’t afford made his stress level climb even more. At the rate his hand was deteriorating, he decided it wouldn’t do much good to go to a hospital anyway. He was worried he might never be able to play the drums again.
The next morning he awoke to find that his hand had fallen completely off. It was resting beside him on a pillow. Spasms of shock bombarded his body. His mind blurred with confusion. He struggled to calm himself.
The miracle was that the rotting had stopped at the beginning of his wrist, and made a perfect line across cauterizing the wound. All the pain was gone. There was no infection traveling up his arm. He lumbered around the room, glancing at his hand lying on the pillow, then at his wrist, while performing a deep breathing exercise. The hand was no longer red and black, but had regained its normal flesh color, and seemed healthy. He rubbed his eyes with his only remaining hand. He focused on his pillow again. The hand was moving. There was no mistaking it. And there was no mistaking the nightmarish dread he felt. He moved reluctantly toward the edge of his bed. The hand crawled back two inches using its fingers and thumb, like a spider.
“What’s going on? Am I dreaming this?”
His hand rotated onto the tips of its four fingers and pointed its thumb downward.
There was a knock at the door.
He walked over to the wall, took his black leather jacket from the coat rack, and slipped it on. He jammed his handless arm down into one of the jacket pockets. He could feel his right hand in the pocket as if it were still attached, even though it was lying on a pillow ten feet away. He went to the door and peered through the peep hole. It was his mother. She usually stopped by on the weekends to take him to breakfast or just chat.
He let her in. She walked over and sat down in an old rocking chair. She smiled at him, set her brown purse on the floor by her feet, folded her hands together, and placed them on her lap. Occasionally his mother would act like some actress she admired on television — usually it would be Sally Field — but he couldn’t see any resemblances to any actresses he knew, in her actions or her hair style this morning, and decided she must not be in an imitation phase this weekend.
Her back was to the hand. He desperately hoped she wouldn’t turn around and see it resting on his pillow. He stood in the middle of the living room near the television set and did his best to position himself where he could see the hand behind his mother while she began her usual light interrogation.
“Have you paid your rent yet?” she asked.
“Yeah, I paid it three days ago.”
He saw movement on the pillow immediately after his mother asked the question. The hand had crawled under part of a blanket. Murphy’s forehead wrinkled. His chest stretched with tension.
“What about the job your father told you about. Have you applied yet?”
He took a few seconds to answer, while studying the hand in the background. He strained his eyes and watched the hand crawl out from under the blanket, revolve onto the tips of its four fingers, and hang its thumb downward.
“Murphy, please look at me when I’m talking to you,” his mother said.
“What? Oh. No, I haven’t applied there yet. But I will soon.”
“Well, what’s been going on with your band? Do you all have any paying dates lined up?” He saw the hand move again. This time it rotated onto the side of its pinky, closed its fingers, and pointed its thumb upward.
“Yeah. We have a gig on Halloween.”
He couldn’t concentrate on her questions. He was too occupied with observing the hand’s behavior. He remembered seeing the hand behave in a similar fashion earlier when he’d asked if he was dreaming that his hand had fallen off.
“Would you like something to drink, mom?”
“I’m fine, son. But you need to eat more. You’re getting too thin.”
“Listen. I’ve gotta take a shower and do some things. I’ll talk to you later, all right?”
“Well, you need to apply for that job soon. And thanks for picking up your grandmother’s package yesterday.”
She took her purse by the handles, walked over to the door, and left without saying anything else. He stalked through the living room toward the hand, hesitant about what he might discover. The shock of losing his hand had not fully set in, but now curiosity surged through his now altered body. The hand was resting palm down on the pillow. He had the urge to test it in some way. To try and identify the meaning of its movements.
“Are you answering the questions you hear?” he asked.
The hand flexed its fingers and thumb like a bird spreading its wings. It tilted up and balanced itself, then lifted its thumb high into the air.
“I take it that’s a yes. Well then, are you still a part of me? Or are you something else?”
It dropped down and rested on its palm again. “Where will you be in ten years?”
No movement. No gestures. Nothing.
“Okay, let me put it another way. Will you still be alive in ten years?”
The hand raised itself onto its finger tips, and lifted its thumb.
“Another yes?” Murphy asked.
It lowered its thumb one inch, then hoisted it into the air again.
He raised an eyebrow, contemplating what he would ask the hand next. “Is the sun shining outside?”
The hand’s thumb remained in the air.
“So, you answer yes or no questions. A person could learn a lot this way. But, the real question is: are your answers dependable? or just crap?”
The hand lowered itself flat, back onto its palm.
“Let’s see. What can I ask you that I’ll be able to confirm?”
He went over to his television set, switched it on, and flipped over to a weather channel. Sixty-seven degrees. He lowered it by two.
“Is the temperature sixty-five degrees right now?”
The hand hesitated — apparently this was a difficult question — then crawled around on the surface of the pillow. It started twitching.
He thought this may be too much for the hand to answer, and frowned in disappointment. He drummed out a complex 7/8 rhythm using the fingers of his left hand as he waited.
Suddenly, the hand pivoted onto its side with the thumb pointed stiffly down toward the pillow. He shook his head in astonishment. “You’re right.” He crossed his arms in front of his chest. He remembered the woman at the post office who had shaken his hand. What did she use on me, voodoo? His mind roared with questions he could ask the hand. He didn’t know which to ask first. He moved closer to the hand and stared at it meditatively for several minutes. The whole situation was surreal. Discombobulating.
Finally, he picked a shirt up from the floor and said, “Stay out of sight.” He covered the hand, and walked to the bathroom. While showering he thought about the proper way to tell his girlfriend that he would be needing a prosthetic hand soon. He hoped she would understand.
* * *
That night Murphy had a dream. So vivid it was like some eerie virtual reality game. It concerned numbers and choices. He saw multi-colored chains of arabic numerals twist in his mind. Vast combinations of sequences appeared before him. All presented by a golden hand streaked with silver stripes. An exotic pattern of abstract logic would flash in front of him for a few seconds in numerical form: 4, 76, -134, 22, 461, 9, -65, 23... And then the hand would float in and replace it with another: 3, 5, 18, 312, 488, 196574...
Although he couldn’t decipher the mathematical meaning of the numbers, he knew what the dream represented: everything in the universe is a sequence. Time makes things this way. Life itself is nothing but a sequence. Our job is to determine its correct order. A ‘yes’ will produce the right consequences for setting up the next question. A ‘no’ to that query will in turn produce the correct ramifications for the next one, and so on. Should you take the job you were offered yesterday? Yes. Should you call the attractive girl you met in the coffee shop on Tuesday? No. Should you become good friends with the person you met at the laundromat on Friday? Yes.
If someone knows all the answers to the questions life gives them before they occur, obviously that person will be successful at whatever they attempt. Even the most simple form of information: answers to yes or no questions, will allow you to be omniscient. Some morning, walk out your front door and follow the proper sequence of events to see all the right things fall into place. Everything in a perfect life can be reduced to a sequence of yes, no, yes, yes, no... if it is truly in the correct order. On, off, off, on, on, off... 1, 0, 1, 1, 1... It’s supremely simple, yet dreadfully difficult.
Copyright © 2004 by Jason Earls
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